The New Space Race

With the launch of the Falcon Heavy, Space-x has demonstrated a booster half as powerful as the mighty Saturn V and three times as powerful as the next largest launch vehicle flying today:

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With the promise of extensive reusability and rapid turnaround times, Space-X seems poised to re-write the economic rules of spaceflight. Are we finally going to see hotels in orbit and colonies on the moon? Well…maybe. Right now, it’s hard to see how anyone is going to compete, not the United Launch Alliance behind the Delta IV Heavy, not the Russians, not Blue Origin, and not NASA. But expect all that to change.

Hat’s off to Space-X and Elon Musk for the sort of innovation that’s been missing from launch vehicle design since the days of Werner Von Braun and Sergei Korolev. Grid fins and engine design ideas from the Russians contribute to performance and reusability. Use of kerosene (out of fashion since the Apollo days) allows for a smaller rocket, which is therefore lighter and more efficient than hydrogen fueled rockets (like the Shuttle and Delta V) even through hydrogen carried more energy per unit mass.  Pre-chilling the fuel (not possible with hydrogen) makes the Falcon even more volume efficient. The result is that the Falcon 9 heavy can launch three times the payload of the Delta V Heavy, even through the falcon is slightly smaller and largely reusable.

This last point cannot be overestimated. Elon Musk has paid attention to something most of the rest of the industry has gotten wrong for decades: The goal in launch vehicle design is cutting the cost per pound to orbit. Specific impulse doesn’t matter. Energy content per pound of fuel doesn’t matter. Reusability, by itself, doesn’t matter. All the matter is, how much does it cost to get a pound into orbit.

The Space Shuttle tries to cut costs through reuse, but created a launch system so complex, it cost more to operate than contemporary expendables (like the Delta IV Heavy). Space-X instead, looked at the math in economic terms. It is amazing that in so doing, they’ve created a launch vehicle that is far more economical than any alternative, even though it has to hold back some of its fuel for the ride home.

Kudos. Mr. Musk. He also understands that rockets become more economical the larger they are. I don’t know if his “BFR” is going to carry colonists to Mars, but one thing I do know. There has been a sea change in space flight, and every player must now keep up or get out of the game. The result, likely, will be honeymoons in orbit sooner than you might think.